Nobody questions Ed Blakely's credentials as an urban thinker. New Orleans just wants him to think before he talks.
Good urban planning is never about the plan alone. It's about bringing the plan to fruition.
So the first sign that Ed Blakely might not have been entirely aware of what he'd gotten into by agreeing to be New Orleans' recovery czar came when he told an audience early in April that he would leave within a year--because so much would have been accomplished.
Blakely has been widely respected for years within planning circles, both as an academic--he was head of the planning school at UC Berkeley and dean of the New School in New York City--and as a practitioner. Even so, it would be hard to find anyone else in New Orleans who'd subscribe to the one-year-and-out theory.
Indeed, Blakely later backtracked, saying that his commitment is now open-ended. It's a good thing, because as tough a job as steering New Orleans to recovery is going to be, Blakely has managed to make it harder on himself.
In the same speech in which he made his one-year prediction, Blakely went on to characterize New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin as lost in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "By the time I arrived," he said, "people were really waiting for any kind of leadership to declare anything."
Blakely was just warming up. In an interview a few days later with the New York Times, he referred to some New Orleans residents as "buffoons," compared the city's racial divisions to "the Shiites and Sunnis," and derided the city's economy as "entirely made up of t- shirts." He later apologized. Nagin, who has had his own brushes with notoriety for his choice of words, responded by suggesting that Blakely "stay focused on the recovery" and "leave the other commentary" to others.
All this would be a mere passing curiosity--any number of New Orleanians would agree with Blakely on at least a few of the things he said, if not all of them--were it not for the fact that Blakely has drawn up an ambitious plan to steer $1.1 billion into 17 targeted "recovery zones" in the city.
Although some areas of the city have raised objections about being left out, the plan has mostly won praise. "It was the first attempt to level with citizens about the city's recovery," says Jim Brandt, who heads the Louisiana Public Affairs Council. "Acknowledging that it couldn't be done at once and selecting 17 recovery zones was a monumental step. People waited 17 months for someone to say, 'Here's what we do.'"
Now, though, the plan has to go through the city's planning commission and city council, and the actual funding has to be nailed down--including a federal waiver from Congress, hazard-mitigation funds from FEMA, and possibly the approval of New Orleans voters to re-assign bond money they approved earlier. It's in that context that Blakely's comments may come back to haunt him.
"He has to build a political consensus, then get the legal implementation, then get the signoff of all the other parties," says Brandt. "And I don't know whether in fact he'll maintain the long-term support."